Wednesday, 4 July 2007

FAL Review: Shackled City

Publisher Paizo. Released July 2005. Format Hardcover. Game system Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. Setting Core. Pages 416. Price $59.95.

Designers Jesse Decker, James Jacobs, Tito Leati, David Noonan, Christopher Perkins, Chris Thomasson. Cover artist Mark Cavotta. Interior artists Attila Adorjany, Tom Baxa, Peter Bergting, Matt Cavotta, Jeff Carlisle, Christine Choi, Stephen Daniele, Omar Dogon, Tom Fowler, Andrew Hou, Ben Huen, Eric Kim, Chuck Lukacs, Val Mayerick, Mark Nelson, Ramón Pérez, Chris Stevens, Jim Zubkavich. Cartography Chris West.

Spoiler altert! This review contains information about the plot of this campaign. If you are planning on playing Shackled City, don’t read any further!

Shackled City is a collection of adventures from the same company that publishes Dragon and Dungeon. Since they have a license from Wizards of the Coast this book is officially D&D. Also, given the ties and connections the people at Paizo have with WotC, and their history of working on the official game before and during the Paizo era, they have a good grasp of what makes or breaks the D&D expericence.

Shackled City was the first long adventure path that I read in Dungeon. As far as I know the term originated with the launch of third edition D&D, with the Sunless Citadel and following adventures. Paizo ran with that idea and published 11 connected adventures in Dungeon. They started at level 1 and worked their way up to level 20, all with an evolving plot line and within the same setting. The Shackled City adventure path ran in issues 97-98, 102, 104, 107, 109, 111 and 113-116. Now comes the hardcover, bringing these adventures together in one book. To play the campaign you need the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual. Other books such as the Planar Handbook or Manual of the Planes could come in handy, but are not at all necessary.

The book collects and expands somewhat on the original 11 adventures from Dungeon as well as adds a 12th to ease transition between adventure one and two. This all clocks in at 416 pages, presented in hardcover with full colour and comes with a fold-out map and 24 page map folder attached to the insides of the covers. All illustrations in the book are related to the campaign and includes action scenes as well as portraits of important NPCs and monsters. Appendices describe the major villains in detail and present new monsters. It is also important to note that even though the main gist of Shackled City is adventures, there is plenty of information on Cauldron and its people as well, which is important given that the campaign mostly takes part there.

The price tag might feel a bit steep but considering the amount of information and the high quality presentation, as well as the hours and hours of gaming to be had from this path, 59.95 is a reasonable price. The book feels heavy and solid, and the physical aspects of it are immaculate.

Ok, but what about the plot? The shackled city is called Cauldron. It has been chosen by evil forces as the site where a gang of villains are to open a dimension gate to Carceri. Obviously, this is not good for the people of Cauldron. The reason for choosing this city is because it is situated in a dormant volcanoe and has various links to the planes through some of its inhabitants. This is of course all unknown to the PCs as the campaign kicks off, and as the action unfolds this is revealed to be only a part of a bigger plan to free a powerful captured demon prince. There are plenty of action to be had, but also investigation and interaction with various NPCs. The PCs end up serving the people of Cauldron and must deal with their politicians as well as the monsters bent on their destruction. The consequences for failure are dire; Cauldron and its people are devoured in a storm of flames and brimstone.

Shackled City has quickly become one of the famous shared experiences of players of third edition D&D, along with the Sunless Citadel and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. And it is easily one of the best roleplaying products I have ever seen for any system. It has its ups and downs, but the downs are mostly inconsequential editing errors. Shackled City rivals my long standing favourites Masks of Nyarlathotep (for Call of Cthulhu) and The Enemy Within (for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay) for the top spot of best campaign ever. While it won’t touch Masks of Nyarlathotep, it is a more consistent experience than The Enemy Within, which floundered after the first three installments. I am convinced that this adventure path will be a true classic for D&D, and also a milestone in the history of our hobby.


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